How to cut power line losses? Computer models aim for better insulation

Researchers have turned to supercomputers in an effort to find a way to fix a vexing inefficiency in today’s electricity grid: the loss of energy caused by less-than-perfect high-voltage insulators.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), up to 7 percent of the nation’s electricity is lost somewhere along its travels on the transmission and distribution grids. As IBM researcher Philip Shemella puts it, “It’s like going to the market and buying a full container of milk and then arriving at home to see a glassful has disappeared.

A lot of those losses can be attributed to problems with insulation on transmission and distribution lines. Whether they’re buried underground or linked by tall power poles above ground, these lines are subject to all sorts of environmental factors that can cause insulating materials to degrade: humidity, high winds, pollution and more. To better understand how those factors work, and how insulators can be made more environment-proof, researchers at IBM and ABB are now using supercomputers in hopes of building a stronger and better insulated grid.

“Using supercomputers, we can simulate at the molecular level how the insulators are damaged by the environment and design them to be more efficient and reliable,” Shemella says.

The companies’ scientists in Switzerland began working together more than two years ago on a joint project to simulate the molecular dynamics of high-voltage insulation materials. Made of silicon rubber, in the lab those materials are known as polymethylhydrosiloxane, or PDMS.

Advanced computing is allowing those researchers to simulate and study the individual molecules used in silicon rubber (in all, the material comprises around one million atoms). They hope the simulations will help them develop new silicon rubber materials that are more resistant to environmental damage.

“Currently, we are running simulations to study how a drop of water affects the reliability of the insulating material,” Shemella says. “Surprisingly, this is very significant, particularly when it is extrapolated across the entire power grid.”

The research team’s initial findings were published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B. They were also presented at the Spring 2011 Materials Research Society meeting in San Francisco, where they won the Best Poster Award.

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